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How might the literary work that lurks within the memory come to have a material effect upon the world? I address this complex issue here by focusing upon poetry memorization and recitation, the pedagogical practice responsible for the dominant relationship that existed between literature and millions of English-speaking people for a substantial proportion of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[1] In this article I explore the emotional reception history of a single schoolroom standard, and consider the following question: how might we begin to understand the process that occurs when the words of a poem memorized in childhood come back to individuals at later stages of their lives? Promoters of recitation in both British and American mass education were certainly keen to talk about the exercise's life-long benefits, and often employed the language of the bank vault to make their points. For instance, the American compiler of a poetry schoolbook in 1883 selected the following words from British essayist Sir Arthur Helps for its title page: "We should lay up in our minds a store of goodly thoughts in well-wrought words, which should be a living treasure of knowledge, always with us, and from which, at various times, and amidst all the shifting of circumstances, we might be sure of drawing some comfort, guidance and sympathy."[2] To guide this investigation, though, I choose a rather more poignant analogy from John Henry Newman's Grammar of Assent of 1870. As befits his own classical education, Newman is here writing about "the words of some classic author, such as Homer or Horace," lines that are "the birth of some chance morning or evening at an Ionian festival, or among the Sabine hills," but it is the contrast between "how differently young and old are affected" that is his principal concern:

Passages, which to a boy are but rhetorical commonplaces, neither better nor worse than a hundred others which any clever writer might supply, which he gets by heart and thinks very fine … at length come home to him, when long years have passed, and he has had experience of life, and pierce him, as if he had never know them before, with their sad earnestness and vivid exactness.


Newman describes a piercing, a sudden entering into the self of the meaning of words that had been there all along. But here I ask whether the "sad earnestness and vivid exactness" of lines learned by heart could also work to heal, or at least, comfort, if they came forth from the heart at a time when that heart was in terrible pain? And if those lines had been memorized not just by a few people here and there, but by entire generations together, how might that change the ways in which individuals used such words? And, then, how might those words, so employed, change their worlds?

"The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna" was written in 1817 by Charles Wolfe, an Irish student training to become a clergyman. Recasting Robert Southey's account of the hasty interment of a British general after a battle of 1809 during the Napoleonic Wars (456-59), the poem runs as follows:

NOT a drum was heard, not a funeral note,

As his corse to the rampart we hurried;

Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot

O'er the grave where our hero we buried.

We buried him darkly at dead of night,

The sods with our bayonets turning,

By the struggling moonbeam's misty light

And the lanthorn dimly burning.

No useless coffin enclosed his breast,

Not in sheet or in shroud we wound him;

But he lay like a warrior taking his rest

With his martial cloak around him.

Few and short were the prayers we said,

And we spoke not a word of sorrow;

But we steadfastly gazed on the face that was dead,

And we bitterly thought of the morrow.

We thought, as we hollow'd his narrow bed

And smooth'd down his lonely pillow,

That the foe and the stranger would tread o'er his head,

And we far away on the billow!

Lightly they'll talk of the spirit that 's gone,

And o'er his cold ashes upbraid him—

But little he'll reck, if they let him sleep on

In the grave where a Briton has laid him.

But half of our heavy task was done

When the clock struck the hour for retiring;

And we heard the distant and random gun

That the foe was sullenly firing.

Slowly and sadly we laid him down,

From the field of his fame fresh and gory;

We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,

But we left him alone with his glory.[3]

A twenty-first-century reader typically finds much about this poem hard to swallow. To begin with, its form—all those feminine rhymes, and even more outrageously, the insistent thrum of the anapest—is generally objectionable to modern tastes. We might respect the rhythm a little more if we remind ourselves that a reader one hundred and fifty years ago would have been quicker to recognize that Wolfe here borrows the rhythm of a drumbeat; both in form and content, then, his poem makes restitution for the tattoo that was missing from this inadequate funeral ("Not a drum was heard.") Even more difficult, perhaps, for today's audience is that very content, which in the wake of the horrific toll of wartime deaths in the twentieth century (and ongoing), and most especially in the cataclysm of World War I, seems to describe a situation which does not appear that terrible in the overall scale of things. After all, Moore's brother officers were able to give their commander a burial, even though it did not include the full military honors a general would normally have received. Most problematic, however, is the fact that this poem invokes the concepts which we tend to believe were one of the contributory causes that led so many young men to offer themselves as lambs to the slaughter in the trenches of Northern France: the so-called "big" or "old" words (such as "hero," "warrior," "fame," and "glory") all make their appearances, as does the euphemistic treatment of death as a "sleep" in a "narrow bed."[4] Yet what I wish to recover in this essay are traces of the poem's influence before World War I, traces of the moments in history when it genuinely seems as if "The Burial of Sir John Moore" did provide some sort of comfort and solace to an individual unable to provide his dead comrade with a decent burial.

At the same time, I am interested in relating this account of the soldier's burial to a much larger discussion that has exercised cultural historians of Britain for some time: how do we account for the massive change in memorial practices that occurs roughly between the time of Sir John Moore and 1915, between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I?[5] After the Battle of Corunna, the 800 common soldiers who also died were piled in a heap, and so buried: as after the Battle of Waterloo, there were no individual, named, graves, and very few mentions of the names of rank-and-file soldiers on any memorials back in Britain. In March 1915, however, a separate unit was created to log the sites of burial of every soldier, where possible; this operation was to culminate, in due course, in the massive endeavor of the Imperial War Graves Commission.[6] This organization ultimately managed to provide over eight hundred thousand individual graves for soldiers' bodies, around six hundred thousand of which also carried the soldier's name. For most of the unidentified remainder, plus over another third of a million cases where the body was never found, the name of the soldier was carved at a commemorative site as close as possible to the last place the individual was known to be alive. To account for such a huge cultural shift, there are obviously many complex and interconnected factors to consider, but I offer my narrative as just one concrete way to think through this change.

In the year after the end of the Great War, the Commission's chair, Rudyard Kipling, set out its policy in an official publication entitled The Graves of the Fallen:

In a war where the full strength of nations was used without respect of persons, no difference could be made between the graves of officers or men. Yet some sort of central idea was needed that should symbolize our common sacrifice wherever our dead might be laid; and it was realised, above all, that each cemetery and individual grave should be made as permanent as man's art could devise.

Imperial War 5

Given the scale of grief suffusing the empire, it is not surprising that Kipling makes no mention of precedents here, and what was proposed and achieved was, indeed, truly innovative. Nevertheless, the individual commemoration of the rank-and-file soldier does have a traceable history from the French Revolution onwards, a history which gathers momentum in the second half of the nineteenth century.[7] In particular, the practices that originated in the American Civil War have led historians to credit this conflict as a kind of way-station en route to the mass memorialization of World War I. It is in the context of this war that I make my case about the functional presence of Wolfe's poem in the minds of ordinary individuals, and its role in creating the social expectations that led to the establishment of the National Cemeteries in the United States. Once "The Burial of Sir John Moore" becomes the common possession of the common soldier, I argue, it contributes to a major shift in the commemorative practices of the English-speaking world.

"The Burial of Sir John Moore" had been prevalent within American education for over twenty years by the time of the Civil War. A key factor in the poem's general dissemination was its inclusion in the first, and all subsequent, editions of the Fifth Reader of the Eclectic Series; originally compiled in 1844, this work constituted a part of the McGuffey brothers' phenomenally successful series of classroom textbooks.[8] Wolfe's poem was certainly lodged in the mind of one particular soldier at Gettysburg. Here is Patrick Henry Taylor ("Henry"), a former schoolteacher and now soldier with the First Minnesota regiment, writing in his journal after the battle: "I helped our Colonel off the field but fail to find my brother who, I suppose, is killed. I rejoin the regiment and lie down in the moonlight, rather sorrowful. Where is Isaac?" The next morning, another soldier tells Taylor that he has found his brother's body and takes him to the spot. Taylor writes that he retrieved Isaac's pocket watch as a keepsake, wrapped his brother up in the half-tent that soldiers carried to sleep in, and then, with the help of some comrades, buried him. He put up a board marked "I L Taylor, 1st Minn Vols," on which he wrote the following words:

No useless coffin enclosed his breast,

 Nor in sheet nor shroud we bound him,

But he lay like a warrior taking his rest,

 With his shelter tent around him.

He then closes the account in his journal with these words: "As we laid him down, I remarked, Well Isaac, all I can give you is a soldier's grave" (Carley 5).

What we witness here, I suggest, is an intersection of two distinct worlds. When Henry writes that stanza of poetry on the board at Isaac's grave, it is a public act, for he chooses to honor and commemorate his brother with words that are intelligible to his society. Yet at the same time it is also an intensely private act. In his adaptation of Wolfe's words to the precise circumstances of Isaac's burial (the "shelter tent" in place of the "martial cloak"), Henry shows that the poem he has memorized is his, his to change in the ways he needs it to change, at a moment when he is experiencing intense grief. At this distance, it is difficult for us to know exactly how to understand the broader dimensions of Henry's behavior, and how it might relate to past practices in the English-speaking world. We may like to think that individual soldiers in conflicts before the American Civil War usually attempted to pay respect to their dead relatives, friends and comrades by giving them whatever kind of burial the immediate situation permitted, but no historical records have been found to confirm such a supposition. It seems reasonable to assume, though, that Henry's feelings about the final rites owed to his brother were probably influenced by his knowledge of the kind of funeral Isaac would have received if he had died back home in Minnesota, and it is certainly easier to discover evidence about changing forms of civilian burial, in different regions, and at different socio-economic levels, in this period.[9] But whatever comparative frames we might bring to bear on this moment in Gettysburg, one thing is clear. There is an explicit belief, evident in Wolfe's poem and in the instance of a soldier like Taylor calling upon it as a resource, that the burial they can offer stands in for one that should have been furnished. For Wolfe, the omission of full military honors provides the occasion for the poem, which is, in effect, created in the space between what a general should have received, and what he does receive. For the common rank-and-file soldier, however, there was in this historical period no secure tradition of any such ceremony or permanent marking of his death, either where he died or on a memorial elsewhere. Yet once the poem, stored within the memory of an ordinary soldier, is summoned up in response to the ad hoc burial of his brother and comrade, then it points towards the absence of a proper commemoration.

The broad distribution of the Fifth Reader across North America ensured that "The Burial of Sir John Moore" would be quoted on both sides of the division, by Confederates and Unionists alike who shared a common cultural heritage. Here is another extract from a wartime journal, this time kept by Kate Cumming, who was working as a nurse for the Confederate forces in Corinth, Tennessee. Her entry for May 6, 1862, runs as follows:

Mr. Jones died today; he was 18 years of age. He died the death of a Christian; he was a brave soldier; true to his God and his country. Miss H. sat up all night with him. She is endeavoring to procure a coffin for him. We have none now in which to bury the dead, as the Federals have destroyed the factory in which they were made. At one time, I thought it was dreadful to have the dead buried without them, but there is so much suffering among the living that I pay little attention to such things now. It matters little what becomes of the clay after the spirit has left it. Men who died as ours do, need no useless coffin to enshrine them.


Reading between the lines, we can see that Kate needs to assert that she has worked through a crisis. Miss H., who has sat for hours at the bedside of a dying young man, is, in the face of the obvious impossibility of her quest, desperately searching for a coffin. "At one time," Kate implies, she too was in Miss H.'s position, but she is trying hard here to tell herself that she has overcome her sense of the "dreadful[ness]" of committing a shattered body to the earth without the cultural dignity of the containing form of a wooden box. "I pay little attention"; "it matters little": with these repetitions, Kate protests that in the face of "so much suffering among the living," the manner in which the dead are buried does not matter, especially when they (and here she reaches towards a further argument) met their ends as nobly as these. "Men who died as ours do, need no useless coffin to enshrine them" she insists, borrowing words from a poem, not from scripture, to attempt to reconcile herself to this seeming betrayal of last respect. The grief, shock and horror which concentrate themselves with the greatest intensity at this one defined point—the direct meeting of body and soil, of "clay" with clay—are wrapped round and consoled by Wolfe's quiet insistence that heroes need no coffins.

Even in the generally less personal genre of a newspaper report, the phrase "no useless coffin" appears to speak to the individual needs of one particular writer as he attempts to come to terms with the intensely distressing sights around him. In a despatch that appeared in the London Times on February 4, 1863, a Canadian correspondent writing from Fredericksburg describes the "unusual care" which is being taken by the Federals "to make arrangements for the wounded." The number of casualties, he states, is "overwhelming":

The air in the hut hospitals became intolerable, the ground literally soaked with blood. Close by were the pits into which was [sic] placed the bodies of those who had died. All possible respect was paid to the dead with an exception—the chaplain could never be had to read the burial service. The writer saw about a dozen in one place being buried together. The pits were about 4 ft. deep. No useless coffin was seen; but there they lay, each with his camp-blanket around the inanimate form which alone separated the features so dear to faraway friends, from the cold, damp earth. Silently the soldiers did the work of the gravedigger, and one form after another disappeared from view and reposed from strife beneath the red Virginian soil. At the head of each was a rough board, upon which was written the name and regiment of the person. This was done as far as was possible, but there were many who died before they could tell who they were, or to what company they belonged. Upon the headboard of these was written simply "Unknown." Upon one I read "Unknown lieutenant." One could not but associate with these "unknowns" the heart-throbs of waiting friends, of anxious mothers, and distracted wives, who waited and waited till time alone said he must be gone.

"The Soldier's Grave"

Here the quotation draws little enough attention to itself, but its significance is clear: the writer is fighting to assuage his horror of that coming together of the "cold, damp earth" and the beloved features of someone's husband, of someone's son, but it seems that he is mounting a rear-guard battle. While Kate Cumming is able to reach towards consolatory justifications, the journalist struggles: only a camp-blanket and Wolfe's insistence that the coffin is "useless" keep the "red Virginian soil" at bay.

A final extract, this time from the private correspondence of a young "Georgian sharpshooter," William Rhadamanthus Montgomery, shows once again the exact site at which one cultural form, Wolfe's poem, offers itself up as the substitution for another cultural form, the coffin, and allows the suffering individual to carry on in otherwise unbearable circumstances. At the front line near Knoxville, Tennessee on November 27, 1863, William has had to break off from writing to his "dear Aunt Frank" to attend to another task. He returns to the letter with these words:

… A few hours later—Since writing the above Aunt Frank I have just finished the painful task of burying one of our men (was killed). "No useless coffin encloses his breast, but he lays like a brave warrior taking his rest with only his blanket around him." It is awful to think of, to be called upon so suddenly to bury an intimate friend & associate. But such is the fate of War, cruel War. Oh! How heartily I would we all hail a happy peace. Do write soon Aunt Frank & tell me all the news about old Marietta. I will write you again soon & will try & have more time to do it in. Our Boys keep up a prettie heavy fire all the time. If you could hear us you would think a battle going on. My love to all the family, & write soon to Your Loving Nephew.

Montgomery 99

What is so impressive about the writings of these individuals immersed in the trauma of violent and untimely death is the resourcefulness of their response: with few comforts at hand in desperate war-time straits, they call upon something deep within to help them survive the emotional devastation of the moment—something "inwoven with the very fabric of [their] mind[s]" since schooldays, as W.H. Williams, the American compiler of Memory Gems for School and Home put it in 1907.[10] It is plain enough, I think, that on the material level, some wrapping of the body, whether it be in cloak, blanket or even shelter-tent, is at this time and for these people an absolute cultural necessity; more surprising, perhaps, is the way in which the bare adequacy of this gesture is repeatedly transformed and ennobled by the internalized memory of another such burial, of a poem which told them that respect and glory are not dependent upon planks of wood and a proper funeral.

"No useless coffin," then, is not the beginning and the end of this story. Although this strand of text serves to suture the purest point of pain, it is important to acknowledge that these three words function as synecdoche, and can only do their work if the entire poem is implicitly present within the hearts of its one-time reciters, and of those who will read and recognize their allusions. Worthy of comment, too, is the fact that Wolfe's poem manages to take on such significance for individuals who to us might seem distanced from its specific referents. That the poem is written by an Irishman about a Scotsman appears to have carried precious little punch—standing, as it did, in the Fifth Eclectic Reader without any annotation whatsoever, "The Burial of Sir John Moore" did not declare these affiliations to its first waves of memorizers, and only the word "Briton" signals national difference within the original text. For the purposes of my argument, though, the question of rank, or rather the absence of its markers, is far more resonant than the question of nationality. It is significant that the word "General" crops up nowhere in the text, and that Moore's honorific title features only in the poem's own title (and titles, I have learned in the course of my work on other memorized poems, have a curious habit of drifting away from otherwise successfully memorized texts, so this would make the effect of its presence there even more negligible).[11] For Wolfe and the poem's early adult British readers, this was specifically an ode to an elite leader, a commander whose social and military standing would almost have guaranteed him the status of "hero" even if his conduct had not been particularly valorous (and it is clear from all accounts of the Battle of Corunna that Moore absolutely deserved the appellation).[12] But for individuals who had learned "The Burial of Sir John Moore" at school in a different country and within a different social system, the poem they carried with them in a time of war threw up no internal hindrances to their applying it to any combatant, whatever his rank; their sense of it not as an alien cultural entity but as their own common property is more than amply illustrated by the fact that they were quick to adapt it to their personal needs. It is in this way, I am suggesting, that both a consolatory thought and an expectation that today seem entirely natural and understandable were supported and advanced by a work of literature: lamenting, and redeeming, an inadequate burial through the structure of Wolfe's poem, those who were left behind to mourn the common soldier thought of him as a hero who deserved more than an unmarked mass grave. The cultural work of "The Burial of Sir John Moore," then, extends beyond the immediate recollection, or imagination, of the scene of interment by individuals, and contributes to the development of new social practices for the memorialization of the rank-and-file solder. The initial steps towards such practices can readily be glimpsed within the course of the American Civil War. A general order to ensure the preservation of "accurate and permanent records of deceased soldiers and their place of burial" was issued in 1861 after the disastrous First Battle of Bull Run; Lincoln's act licensing the president "to purchase cemetery grounds ... to be used as a national cemetery for the soldiers who shall die in the service of their country" followed twelve months later; and then a series of measures over the next forty years gradually moved the United States towards a system which would make the single, named, site for each and every fallen soldier its ideal.[13]

That Wolfe's poem also came to inhabit the British consciousness is clear from the responses of those caught up in the many "little wars" of Victoria's reign.[14] When we move into the twentieth century, however, the situation changes dramatically. Because of the horrific circumstances of long-entrenched warfare in Northern France and Belgium, the poem, predictably enough, receives little direct quotation in the public and private literature of World War I; as already noted, Sir John's maimed rites seem lavish and elaborate when considered in relation to a world in which any kind of burial was regularly impossible. In a sense, though, the work of "The Burial of Sir John Moore" had already been done, and not just in its role of promoting the creation of the American precedent. In contributing to the consolidation of the long-standing archetype of the noble soldier in the minds of millions of people, Wolfe's poem helped to ensure that men who died in World War I received not only some form of individual commemoration abroad, but also commemoration as heroes back home. Until fairly recently, it was a commonplace both in the cultural history and the literary criticism which addressed this period to assert that the nineteenth-century ethos and the "big" or "old" words we find in poems like "The Burial of Sir John Moore" rendered them repugnant to a substantial majority of the British population after the war.[15] There are complex, but understandable, reasons why such a belief should have prevailed for so long, but massive physical evidence has always existed to contradict it. Most notably, war memorials, in every village, in every town, and in every city across Britain stand in silent but impressive rebuke to the concept of such a dismissal. The spirit of the martial and patriotic poems of the past infuses these stony commemorations of World War I: these memorials do not reject "the old words," but carry their carving again and again and again above the names of the listed individuals, the Glorious and Immortal Dead. "The Burial of Sir John Moore" ends by asserting that the general is left overseas with his glory; the mass memorization of this poem, I argue, helped to ensure that in the wake of World War I, glory was general all over Britain.

To venture into the fray of the cultural history of war and commemoration bearing nothing more substantial than a 32-line poem may seem foolhardy, or quixotic at least. In closing, I should make it clear that my poetic standard functions in this argument both as the thing itself—the lines of the poem genuinely affected the way in which some individuals in distress represented their situation to themselves and to others—and as the emblem of a number of broad social changes which had the result of making people feel very differently about the positions in which they and their loved ones were placed in wartime. It would be uncontroversial to suggest that the state begins to maintain graves and mark the names of all its soldiers, regardless of rank, because of the increasing democratization and spread of individualism within its society: these were processes which made it possible for a large proportion of the population to achieve a high level of literacy and thus a new relationship to identity. Yet such an abstract statement does not take us very close to how and why specific, felt, needs arose. Standing as both representative symbol and result of major social shifts, the memorized poem affords a significantly different point of access to this instance of historical change; a focus on words that were carried far and wide within countless individuals helps to bring us nearer to the changing of hearts and the changing of minds. This essay suggests that it is through our examination of moments like Henry Taylor's description of his brother's burial or Kate Cumming's account of her struggle to accept the unacceptable that we can best begin to understand those mass cemeteries, the permanent memorials of Northern France and Belgium, those hundreds of thousands of individually named and preserved graves, soldiers of all ranks together. In essence, Wolfe's poem is about reparation, functioning as a belated attempt to provide what should have been given at the time: "We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone." I argue here that the mass memorization of "The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna" played its part in the modern phenomenon of mass memorialization, and thus in the carving of a million lines, and the raising of a million stones.